Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, now under investigation for allegedly politicizing the Justice Department, ousted a top lawyer for failing to adopt the administration's position on torture and then promised him a position as a U.S. attorney to placate him, highly placed sources tell ABC News.
Gonzales, who was just taking over as attorney general, asked Justice Department lawyer Daniel Levin to leave in early 2005, shortly after Levin wrote a legal opinion that declared "torture is abhorrent" and limited the administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques.
At the time, Levin was in the middle of drafting a second, critical memo that analyzed the legality of specific interrogation techniques, like waterboarding.
Gonzales, however, was concerned about how it would be perceived if Levin were ousted immediately after issuing the opinion — and just before he finished another — so he offered Levin a less significant job outside the Department of Justice at the National Security Council, sources tell ABC News.
Gonzales then assured Levin he would, at some point, recommend him for a plum job as the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, sources tell ABC.
A spokesman for Gonzales, Robert Bork Jr., called it "simply untrue" that Levin was fired for his work on the torture opinion.
"Judge Gonzales denies the contention that Mr. Levin was 'placated' with an offer of the U.S. attorneys slot in Los Angeles," Bork said, adding that Gonzales considered him "extremely well qualified for such a role" and that Levin had expressed an interest in it.
Bork said Levin was appointed to his Justice Department job in a "temporary" capacity for "a short period of time" and was offered a "critical legal position" in the NSC after a "permanent nominee" at Justice was identified. Bork said Gonzales "has the greatest respect" for Levin.
Levin took the NSC job in March 2005. The U.S. attorney position never materialized, and sources close to Levin say he never believed Gonzales was serious. He went on to take a job in private practice.
Testifying before Congress Wednesday, Levin, who had been the Department of Justice's acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, said he had hoped to remain in the post after writing the torture memo.
"You were asked to go because you were at odds with administration's policies," said Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat. "I think there is a pattern here. A lot of the people who got it right have been asked to leave by this administration."
Levin acknowledged in the hearing that he was asked to leave after he wrote the December 2004 memo on torture. He refused to speculate on why Gonzales asked him to leave the Office of Legal Counsel, which issues legal opinions and provides guidance to the White House.
"I would have preferred to have stayed," he said.
The allegation that Gonzales dangled a U.S. attorney's job in front of a top official he was ousting connects two investigations that have monopolized the Justice Department in recent years.
Just a few weeks before Levin was asked to leave, White House Advisor Karl Rove and Gonzales were involved in discussions over the dismissals of several U.S. attorneys. Nine were dismissed the following year, and the matter erupted into a scandal, with critics alleging the administration saw the US attorney posts as patronage positions.